Fellows Friday: Q&A with Theater Artist Jennifer Kidwell


Jennifer Kidwell, 2016 Pew Fellow. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.


This week, we speak to theater artist Jennifer Kidwell (2016), whose poignant, performer-driven theater work addresses the complexities of race and notions of American history with sharp intelligence and wry humor. Invested in probing challenging social and historical truths, Kidwell is the co-creator of Underground Railroad Game, which was lauded by The New York Times in its “Best Theater of 2016” feature. Kidwell is co-artistic director of the theater company Lightning Rod Special and co-founder of the Brooklyn-based performance space JACK. In April, she will appear in the multidisciplinary performance piece, I Understand Everything Better, as part of the 2017 Fusebox Festival in Austin, TX.

Jennifer Kidwell FF Q&A: Content Block 1

How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?

The summer before I began first grade, my parents sat me down and offered me a choice: I could either join the Brownies—which I had been begging to do—or I could start violin lessons. Since I failed to convince my parents to let me do both, I went out on a limb and began playing the violin that fall. Private lessons expanded into weekly Kodály, solfège, rep class, and orchestra. I was hooked on learning and playing music and the ensemble nature of orchestra. I stopped lessons when I was 16 because performance had become too anxiety-inducing. I remember violently shaking with nerves at every solo performance, so I decided to put the violin down. I took a year off from music, but ended up getting a scholarship to study voice my senior year of high school. That program included private vocal and piano lessons, music theory, rep classes, out-of-town trips, performances, etc. Somewhere around that time, I saw an actor perform a monologue from [Ntozake Shange’s] for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I was blown away by the writing and the drama of it all, and continued to be into the rigor of the vocal program in which I was enrolled, so I decided against studying law and opted to study art and performance instead.

You have studied and worked in both New York and Philadelphia, among other cities. Why do you choose to work and live in Philadelphia? In your experience, what makes this arts scene distinctive?

I feel that the impetus of the arts scene in Philly is one of absolute possibility. There’s a lot of pluck and nerve, as well as curiosity among Philly artists. I also find the community unbelievably tight and strong. The spirit of doing, the closeness of artists across disciplines combined with the relatively low cost of living make Philly ideal for experimentation and making. I have been blown away by the number of opportunities I’ve had here, as well as the support of and interest in my work.

Jennifer Kidwell FF Q&A: Content Block 2

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